So is Windows Phone 8 any good?

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It was with a feeling of trepidation that I decided to ditch Apple’s iOS after having been an avid iPhone fanboy since the beginning. I loved the simplicity, wealth of apps and the solid design. So why change?

I found myself in the Apple trap, where you feel compelled to get the latest and greatest just because it’s new. However, each edition tended to only bring small improvements and change, and after upgrading from a 4 to 4s I started to feel a little jaded by the whole thing.

So having seen Windows Phone 8 arrive, I decided to make the jump and try something new. Having used Windows 8 on my desktop , I figured it would make sense to try for a more seamless experience. At the time the HTC 8X was an o2 exclusive and the Nokia (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/nokia/lumia-920/) was a Vodafone exclusive so on a wet and cold December evening, I tromped off to the o2 store and bought a shiny new HTC 8X (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/htc/windows-phone-8x/). Everyone said I’d hate it and would be back to my iPhone in less than a week!

Now, as an aside, the guy in the o2 shop was amazing! I was determined to change phone, but he also managed to switch me on to a more appropriate tariff as well (saving £25 per month!).

So first thoughts – the Interface is simple and friendly. Windows Phone uses “Tiles” on the home screen – these can be dynamic and show you bits of content (such as the weather, or News for instance). Applications not on the home screen are all grouped together in a list (which can get quite long) but you can click on the Search item and lookup). Typically you’ll put your most useful or favourite Apps on the home screen in any case.Windows 8 Home Screen

Setting it up was easy – as it’s essentially Outlook on the phone, setting up my Exchange email account was a breeze, as was getting it connected to my SkyDrive (if you use Office 365 that’s equally easy to set up). Apps are installed via the “Store” App (and you’ll see a distinct lack of Apps compared to Android and Apple – more on that later) and is a fairly simple and straightforward exercise. I’ll admit to not having purchased any Apps so I cannot comment on what that experience is like.

Apps

Anyway, to ensure my commitment to this new phone, I cleaned up my iPhone 4s and gave it to my mum (who promptly fell in love with it – but that’s another story!) and off I went in to this brave new world.

And you know what? It was ok. Some things took a bit of getting used to, and I missed some Apps (most notably the Barclays banking App) but after a week, it was starting to fit quite nicely in to my life. As a fairly simple user, my demands were not high, but it pretty much did what I needed it to and in a very easy and simple way. No fuss, no bother. It just worked. The limited choice of Apps did initially bother me, but new ones are arriving all the time, and it’s altogether possible that there is too much choice on the other platforms. It’s worth being aware that certain Apps are unlikely to appear any time soon, such as Banking and perhaps other manufacturers (such as BMW) will probably not find the investment in creating Apps for Windows Phone worthwhile.

And so time passed by, and the recent announcement of iOS 7 and (invariably) another evolution of the iPhone prompted me to think about my phone and write this little piece about it. Will I go back to an Apple iPhone? Possibly, although it would need to be pretty compelling considering the high cost of the phone and most likely very minor changes from the 5. The Nokia Lumia 925 (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/nokia/lumia-925/) is a very nice looking Windows phone (the camera in the HTC is rubbish – The Nokia camera is significantly better) and if I was in the market for a new phone that’s what I’d be getting.

With the imminent release of 8.1 it’ll be interesting to see what that brings although I suppose Windows Mobile 8.5 or 9 will bring the more significant change (and perhaps I’ll be bored of it by then and ready to jump into Android)!

 

 

Feeling Blue?

It seems like just yesterday that we were assaulted with Windows 8, and yet the release of its first major update – Windows Blue – is rumoured to be just around the corner.

Things are still very much at the rumours stage, as Microsoft have yet to make any official announcements about Blue (that’s it’s working codename, incidentally, rather than its official title), but here’s a brief roundup of the bits and bobs that have been unearthed so far.

Spoiler alert: don’t get your hopes up. It’s more Windows 8.1 than Windows 9 we’re talking about here, so really just little tweaks added on top of what’s there already.

  • You’ll be able to split your full screen apps 50/50 on the screen with other apps, instead of the somewhat limiting 75/25 restriction at present

  • You’ll get Internet Explorer 11 (Eric’s excited, the rest of us use Chrome)

  • And you might, you just might, get the start button back (although early suggestions seem to imply that it won’t give you back the old-skool “Start Menu”).

  • You might also be able to boot directly to the desktop, rather than the Start screen

And, yeah, that’s about it so far. It’s getting a lot of press for something so seemingly underwhelming, but frankly that’s more because of what it represents than the actual features it’s touting.

So, what’s the real deal then? Well, the process Microsoft is currently going through marks a significant deviation from their previous update process.

In the past, a major version of Windows (XP, Vista, 7 etc) would be released, followed up with minor updates and then a big “Service Pack”. Then another year or two of minor updates, then another Service Pack. Typically each version of Windows would see two Service Packs before starting off the whole process again with a new version of Windows.

The shiny new update model revolves around a series of more frequent updates, more akin to the Apple way of doing things. Apple have been rocking “Mac OS X” for 12 years now (!), issuing a series of updates along the way to bring us up to the latest 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”). Each update represents a series of changes based on the previous iteration, but nothing so major as to require much of a learning curve (although if you were to hop even from 10.4 to 10.8, you’d find it a slightly strange world).

Whether Microsoft will charge for an update to Windows Blue is, as yet, unknown. If they do I should expect it to be around the £20 mark, as has been the case with Apple’s most recent updates. Instinctively I feel as though even £20 will seem steep to a lot of people (remember, Windows 8 has sold 100 million licences) – especially given the freshness of this departure from their previous update model – but by the time Windows “Green” is released in 18 months or so, people will be pretty well used to it. It’s amazing how quickly people adjust these days.

Suffering from a slow PC?

We frequently get asked about slow PC’s and in particular we’re asked to increase the performance or at least determine why a PC that seems to be relatively new is now the donkey of the office.

The main reason for this is of course the spec of the PC and in particular the amount of RAM (Random Access Memory) installed. The other bottleneck is the CPU (Central Processing Unit) but it’s not usually the main offender.

But why when the spec of the PC hasn’t changed is it now running slower than when you first got it? Well, the amount of programs that are running on the PC will have a dramatic effect on the performance of the machine. It should be said as well that programs can run silently in the background without the user being aware. Task Manager is a good way to see what is running on the machine as it will show up all of the processes that are currently active.

Another point to make about slow machines is the expectation of the user. As technology advances and we’re subjected to faster, cleaner machines, it’s quite easy to expect too much from your existing PC. A high-end PC a year ago is probably only a mid-range PC a year later and most likely a donkey of a box within 2-3 years. Users tend to forget that while their PC’s hardware hasn’t changed over this period, the applications and software that are being used on them is constantly changing. Most of the changes inevitably lead to more processing power or memory being consumed even if (to the user) they see no real change.

So, what can you do as a user who’s experiencing a slow PC? Well there are a few things that you can check to try and understand what the main cause of the issue is.

Check the Task Manager and look at the overall CPU and Memory figures, if these are high (60%+ usage) then close down anything that you’re not using such as a every email in Outlook or maybe those 15 tabs you have open in Internet Explorer.

Look at the Spec of the PC, if you’re running less than 4GB of RAM I wouldn’t expect too much from the machine. With the price of RAM these days an upgrade to 8GB can be achieved for under £50 on some machines – money well spent in my eyes!

Scan for any nasties, this subject will most likely be covered in more detail at a later stage, however, for now it’s worth a mini-mention. Scan for Viruses and in particular Malware, Microsoft Security Essentials is a great free Virus checker if you don’t already have one. Malwarebytes (again free) is a fine program that looks for malicious software on the PC and may help remove some items that take up valuable resources without the user necessarily being aware of them.

The above notes are the basics and instructions on all of these points are readily available on the internet for anyone feeling like they want to tackle a slow machine by themselves however we are also happy to look over a PC and give our own diagnosis on it.

Which browser should you be using?

We get a lot of people asking which browser should I use?. The answer depends a little bit on exactly what the needs of the user are, or are likely to be, but as often as not we find ourselves recommending Google Chrome

Of course, whatever computer you buy – Mac or PC – it will come pre-installed with one browser, but that’s not necessarily to everyone’s tastes and sometimes having the choice can be a good thing.

As a support team, it can often make our lives easier if you have more than one browser installed, even if you only ever use your “default” one. If you happen to have an issue with a website, we’ll often ask you to go to the same website in a different browser to see what happens – it can help us decipher if its a problem with the browser you were using initially, or the website itself is having issues.

So why Chrome?
Well, it tends to perform pretty well at the basic things. Starting up fast, opening up new pages and tabs when it’s already running, etc. In fact in almost all of the categories it wipes the floor with the competiton (Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Opera are the main contenders).

There are other advantages, too. It’s multi-platform, so you can have it on your home Mac and your work PC. If you have a Google account, you can sync your setup between computers. Bookmarks, homepage, extensions, the lot. You can also set it up to send pages to your phone (iPhone and Android only, as far as I know!) ao you can carry on reading the same article when you leave your desk.

Any drawbacks?
Of course there are. Nothing’s perfect, especially when it comes to software. But a number of them can be worked around. The two main issues we encounter are these:

Various Microsoft websites don’t really “work” in Chrome. Most notably this applies to older (2007 and earlier) Webmail interfaces, but things like CRM platforms can also be affected. Sadly, the only way around this is to use Internet Explorer (but even then things can be ropey – a good tip is to enable compatibility mode)

The other place where Chrome can struggle is when using multiple tabs. Despite its own boasts that it can handle several open tabs simultaneously (it can), it is particularly memory hungry. If you don’t have a lot of RAM installed on your computer (we recommend at least 4GB these days, for all but the most basic of uses) then you can quickly run into problems with even just 5 or 6 tabs open at once.

The chances are Chrome won’t crash, but the fuller your RAM gets the slower your computer will become.

If you do *need* to work with a whole load of tabs open, for whatever reason – we don’t judge, then there’s a couple of things you can try. If you need tabs open to refer back to later, consider using bookmarks, or even a link saving, article reading service like Pocket. That way you can save the link and close the tab.

And if you really need all those tabs? Well, then the best thing you can do right now is switch to Firefox and get some more RAM!

Freaked out by Google Ads?

I imagine you’ve noticed that when you’re browsing the web, there are a whole load of sites which have spookily well targeted adverts on them. They can be a bit overwhelming, sometimes, and lot of folks feel like it’s an invasion of their space. Imagine you’ve been browsing for new shoes on your and suddenly all of your Ads are trying to sell you shoes…

It’s obvious why companies do this, and how Google can make their money. If they know you’re looking at shoes, it’s not a big leap to realise that if they push some adverts under your nose you’re more likely to click and buy them.

But did you know you can “opt out” of this targeting? It’s pretty easy, too, at least with Google ads. There’s a wee video guide from Google just below, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination (insert appropriate Big Ben/Tower of Pisa joke here) then just click here to go straight to your own Web Ads Preference page, or here. Bear in mind that you’ll probably see more ads if you opt out on the search front, but they won’t be quite so targeted at you. According to Google, users who remain “opted in” to the targeted Search ads are 42% more likely to click on one!

For those of you with the curiosity as to how Google makes this work, they use cookies to keep tabs on the sites that you’re visiting, and so can glean a fairly decent understanding of the sort of things you’re looking for – either on a regular basis, or for a concentrated period My targeted ads are, unsurprisingly, virtually all for IT products and services.

Another trick you can use if you want to keep the targeted adverts live, but simply not to register that you’re looking at certain things (engagement rings, for example, gents) then you can start up a private browsing session and then your activity (probably) won’t be tracked and applied to your targeted Ad profile. Phew. I shall sleep easy tonight.